It was left to the young generation yesterday to assure the world that the England team have a future, 70 days after the squad left Brazil behind and their summer of pain at the World Cup.
For Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling, Brazil was their first experience of an England World Cup and – like so many before them – it behoved these two young men to look forward rather than back, to what the Football Association desperately hopes will be a happier future. Henderson acknowledged that it was time his generation stepped “up to the plate” and this time there really is no alternative.
The Liverpool midfielder is being spoken of as a potential future captain and at 24, with 13 caps, and the retirement of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, there are few more experienced options left. Sterling is a prodigious talent, still a teenager, but the changes being wrought on the team mean that his growing-up will have to be done on the pitch.
It starts tomorrow against Norway at Wembley, a low-key friendly for the new era, although the stakes will be raised considerably come Monday and the first Euro 2016 qualifier against Switzerland in Basel. At Roy Hodgson’s session at the Arsenal training ground yesterday, there were just 13 players on the pitch – with those who played on Sunday or carrying minor injuries excused.
This time the change is enforced upon Hodgson, who will appear in front of the press today for the first time with his new captain, Wayne Rooney. The England manager has no option but to place his trust in some of his younger players, with the second most-capped player in the squad after Rooney being James Milner with 48 appearances for his country. “Now I think it is for the younger lads to step up,” Henderson said. “They have to show just what they have to offer and what they have to give for the team.”
The memories of the World Cup, however, linger on but Henderson said that the response he had encountered from the English football public on returning home had been largely encouraging.
“There is no hiding away from that, as players, it should have been a lot better,” he said. “We have to go out there, show we deserve to be in the England team and show people how good we are and how much we really care. I feel there was a lot of negativity after the World Cup and everyone was very down. The message I got was always: ‘Keep your head up, keep going’.”
Sterling, like Henderson, was positive about the numbers of elite-level English players, in spite of the statistics pointing to the reduced numbers of English footballers in the biggest Premier League teams. “I wouldn’t say the pool is getting smaller,” Sterling said. “There are a lot of talented players in the youth system. It’s a matter of them getting a chance to play.”
Asked how many of England’s current squad would hypothetically merit a place in Germany’s team, Henderson declined to answer but said reaching the level of the world champions was not an impossibility for English players.
“There are a lot of players who could get to that level with the right mentality and the right coaching, so I think it’s still bright in my eyes. I am still very optimistic about what we can achieve. I know everyone around us will criticise us but we believe we are good players, we can improve. That is what we are going to try and do.”